March 31, 2013

Tough times for magazines

THINGS SEEM TO BE RATHER TOUGH for yachting magazines these days. I’ve noticed a couple of them lately that have been begging for help from their readers. They’re conducting “surveys” in which they ask people what articles they would like to see more of, what different things they might like to see emphasized, what changes would induce them to like the magazine more, and so on.

I hate to see these surveys. They are nothing more than disguised pleas for help. Long experience has taught me that there is no point in asking people what they want. It all evens out in the end and comes to nothing. Some will say this, some will say that, some will have no opinion — and the worst part is that the magazine owners are pleading for help from people who already read their publications, not the people who don’t — the latter being the ones they’re supposed to attract. They’re preaching to the converted, not to the great unwashed hoi polloi with money to spend on magazines.

Every time I see one of these surveys I’m reminded of what the 19th-century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin is reputed to have said:  “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

A knowing editor doesn’t ask people what to put in the magazine.  He or she tells them what they need, offers it up, and refuses to go down on his knees to get them to read it  It was Harold Evans, a famous editor himself, said some of the attributes of a good editor were keenness, conscientiousness, and ruthlessness — rightly used.  You may notice that these, possibly not coincidentally, are also the attributes of a good skipper.

In the same way that a good skipper does not seek democratic opinion on a boat, a good editor should never be wishy-washy. Most of us are pretty wishy-washy already, even-handed and ready to listen to a reasoned argument from the opposition. But deep down, being pack animals at heart,  what we really crave is a firm leader, a despotic leader if necessary, a benevolent dictator.  We’ll always follow a charismatic leader who exhibits a definite direction, so we don’t have to guess where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. 

Democracy is by definition wishy-washy and at odds with nature, which demands the survival of the fittest by any means.  Democracy is also full of compromises and concessions to the weak of mind and muscle. It’s the domination of the household by the nursery. That’s why we have such trouble getting any political work done in America.  Our so called leaders are being too nice to the bunch of gun-toting nasties they’re trying to govern.

A good editor needs to be a “character” and to have strongly felt opinions (based on thorough knowledge, both practical and theoretical) and not be shy about espousing them.

Tom Day, former editor of The Rudder, was a good example. He was outspoken, pragmatic, and firm of opinion. He admitted he could be wrong — but that wouldn’t necessarily change his mind. He wasn’t scared of offending people — and he turned The Rudder into one of the most successful sailing magazines this country has ever known.

If you were starting a new magazine or trying to prop up an ailing one, what would you need to think about? Two things spring to mind.

1. What vacant niche are you trying to fill?  What audience are you aiming at?  What kind of boater? You can’t interest them all. You have to make choices right from the beginning, and stick to your guns.  What niche do you want to compete in? DIY? Sailboats? Flashy big new ones, or small shabby old ones? Powerboats? River boats? Fishing boats? Or any of a dozen other categories.  You should become the expert in this restricted field.

 2. What is your advertising policy? The editorial niche you’re trying to fill will, to a large extent, determine what kind of advertisements you can attract. Will you lure advertisers with promises of editorial write-ups? Or will you treat advertising and editorial as completely separate entities? There are serious ethics involved here, and too many  magazines ignore them. But I have always believed that intelligent readers know when they’re being conned with effusive, over-enthusiastic editorial tied to paid advertising. 

There is lots more I could say on this subject, but let us dwell a moment on this final thought: Did the author of the Ten Commandments ever conduct a survey to establish what the people wanted?   And in this same vein it is well to remember that the Pope, unchallenged leader of a billion Catholics, never pretends to espouse democracy.  He’d probably make a good editor.

Today’s Thought
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
— George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutions

“Did you hear about Bob’s terrible operation?”
“No, what happened?”
“His father cut off his allowance.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Rob and Serena Cole said...

John, would it be too forward to say I "love you man." Winston Churchill, "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."

Just playin', nice post.


John Vigor said...

Heck, no, Rob, it wouldn't be too forward. But what would Serena say?

John V.

Deb said...

Funny you should post this just now. My husband and I were just talking last night about the fact that Cruising World was now about 40% ads and they were ads that don't apply to us so we're going to let it lapse at the next subscription. My favorite magazine? Good Old Boat. Very pertinent articles to my particular niche and only applicable ads. I fear for it, though, because one of my very favorite magazines used to be Living Aboard, and we all know what happened when it got picked up by a corporate conglomerate with no real ties to the reader...

S/V Kintala